Race for Latino California: The Dornan-Sanchez Rematch Will Show the Staying Power of 1996 Coalitions
Frayne, Gabriel, Jr., The Nation
"Exhilarating" and "hectic" are the words California Representative Loretta Sanchez Uses to characterize the first year and a half of her first term in Washington. She is standing outside an Orange County supermarket on a sultry Saturday afternoon, smiling contagiously as she greets a long queue of constituents, seemingly oblivious to a nearby group of protesters hustling literature that accuses her of leading the Republic to ruin. Her sanguine appraisal strikes one as a curious way of describing a period in which she has battled allegations of massive voter fraud and survived an attempt by House Republicans to unseat her and now finds herself facing a rematch with her accuser, Bob Dornan, the nine-term incumbent she defeated by a mere 984 votes in 1996. Nationally, the Sanchez-Dornan contest is being watched closely as one of a few dozen swing races that will determine the new House majority. But Loretta keeps smiling, working the crowd as if driven by adversity, as if she senses that history is on her side. Indeed, her running battle with Dornan has made Sanchez the cynosure of what may turn out to be the greatest transformation of California's political landscape since Governor Hiram Johnson carried the progressive banner to Sacramento nearly a century ago.
Somewhat ironically, the passage of anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994 marked the end of the days when California's Latino population--now about 30 percent of the state's total--could be dismissed as an occasionally raucous but mostly nonvoting constituency. Over the past five years more than a million foreign-born California residents have acquired citizenship, and between 1992 and 1996 Latino voter registration increased by 28.7 percent, according to the Southwest Voter Education and Registration Project in Los Angeles. Prop 187 "was the single most galvanizing moment of empowerment in our community's history," says Alfredo Cruz, formerly of Southwest Voter. "It made it a lot easier for us. People were really pissed off." And greater registration has already translated into greater representation: There are now fourteen Latinos in the California Assembly (up from ten before 1996) and five US Representatives (up from three). In addition, both the present and most recent assembly Speakers are Latino, as is the chairman of the state Democratic Party, Art Torres. Of course, the Latino voting bloc still has a long way to go: Latinos made up only about one-eighth of the California electorate as of the June primary--versus almost one third of the total population.
Sanchez owes her success at least in part to two unlikely confederates: Governor Pete Wilson and Dornan himself. The former turned Prop 187 into a political lifeboat when he was trailing badly in the polls in 1994, a strategy that assured his re-election but is now proving somewhat problematic for the state Republican Party. As one Latino academic summarized the governor's political legacy: "Pete Wilson will be known in the future as the godfather of Latino California." And Wilson's strong support in 1996 for anti-affirmative action Prop 209 did not endear the Republicans to the state's new Latino voters. Dornan, the famously belligerent poster boy for angry white males everywhere, succumbed to his own vitriol in his previous challenge to Sanchez, which galvanized a coalition of Latino, gay, labor and other activists who've been on the receiving end of the far right's revanchist policies. "I welcome people like Bob Dornan," says Reuben Martinez, a longtime community activist in Santa Ana. "Because of him the Latino community is starting to participate and becoming citizens and getting out to vote."
Did the election of a young Latina Democrat in California's 46th Congressional District in 1996 signal a genuine Latino political renewal? By some measures, yes. The 46th came into existence after the 1990 census, when California gained seven Congressional seats and the Democrat-controlled state legislature carved out a new, predominantly Democratic district (including Santa Ana, with a majority Latino population) in the geographical center of Orange County. …